A Companion to Greek Art (Smith/A Companion to Greek Art) || Ancient Writers on Art

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  • 14.1 Introduction

    Modern historians of Greek art unlike their colleagues who study the arts of many other periods and cultures have the advantage of numerous ancient texts that address the production, reception, and function of artifacts in multiple media, from architecture, sculpture, and painting to mosaics, met-alwork, engraved gems, jewelry, and coinage. As many citations throughout thiscollection of essays testify, these written sources are a boon to scholars, providing valuable information about ancient artists, patrons, and viewers, as well as objects that survive and those that are irretrievably lost. Indeed, for some media, such as panel painting, wooden sculpture, and textiles, texts are virtually all we have (Reinach 1921; Pollitt 1990: 124180, 206220; Robertson 1975; Meiggs 1982; Vickers 1999; Koch 2000). But ancient writings on Greek art also present pitfalls. Most Greek and Latin authors discuss what we today call works of art not as their principal subject, but rather insome other context. Whether their agenda is religious, social, polit-ical, historical, rhetorical, philosophical, aesthetic, or antiquarian, ancient writers frequently employ art as a convenient tool for making some other point. This is true even in cases when their aim seems to be art-historical. Also, most such writers lived and wrote long after the works they discuss were created. Pliny and Pausanias, arguably the two most important ancient authors on Greek art (see further below), lived in the 1st and 2nd c. AD, respectively. They were chronologically more distant from the Golden Age of Athens of the mid 5th c. BC than we today are from the death of Michelangelo in 1564. To be sure, they lived in cultures with some continuity

    CHAPTER 14

    Ancient Writers on Art

    Kenneth Lapatin

    A Companion to Greek Art, First Edition. Edited by Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos. 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2012 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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  • 274 Forms, Times, and Places

    with the Archaic and Classical past, but society had changed considerably: the Greece they knew was under the domination of Rome, and negotiating cultural interaction wasfor them and other contemporaneous writers a con-siderable challenge. Another pitfall for us today in utilizing ancient Roman writers is the fact that their Latin vocabulary does not always express well the ideas, circumstances, and culture of those who originally commissioned, produced, and viewed Greek art. Pliny himself recognized that there is no Latin name for the symmetria observed by Lysippos (HN 34.65); the Roman concepts of imitatio and aemulatio discussed by many authors, moreover, are not exact equivalents of Greek mimesis, for the needs, desires, and taste of Roman patrons (of literature as well as of art) were different from those of Archaic, Classical, and even Hellenistic Greeks (Pollitt 1974; Perry 2002, 2005).

    Post-antique collections of ancient written sources on Greek art present modern readers with hundreds indeed, thousands of passages that are of interest to scholars and students, but these are necessarily removed from their larger literary contexts. Organized according to some overarching principle, be it alphabetical, chronological, geographical, by medium, artist, or some combination thereof, such collections, often in or with translation and accompanied by commentary, are both convenient and useful, but the many short extracts they contain risk being treated as objective reports with an aura of historical truth rather than as part of some larger ancient argument (see e.g. Junius 1694; Overbeck 1868; Stuart-Jones 1895; Reinach 1921; Miller 19291931; Meiggs 1982; Corso 19881991; Hebert 1989; Pollitt 1990; Stewart 1990; Lapatin 2001; Muller-Dufeu 2002).

    Written accounts of finely crafted objects, what we today call works of art, are nonetheless as old as the earliest Greek literature (even older, if we include those mentioned on the Linear B tablets of Mycenaean Greece), and they continued to be penned through the Roman Empire, Late Antiquity, and Byzantium, more than a millennium after the creation of some of the objects described. Homer invokes many beautiful items in both epics credited to him. In Book 18 of the Iliad, for example, he describes in great detail the legendary Shield of Achilles, enriched with many a wonder by the cunning hand of the craftsman god, Hephaistos. This 130-line tour de force, however, is less an accurate account of contemporaneous visual culture than a disquisition on the cosmic order and the virtues of peace and good government. Even texts written by craftsmen who seem to provide detailed accounts of their practice must be read with a grain of salt. We know that many ancient sculptors, painters, and architects wrote technical treatises (see further below), but only one survives in its entirety: Vitruviuss De Architectura, written at the end of the 1st c. BC. Vitruvius seems to provide a handbook for creating and decorating buildings of different types, but recent scholarship suggests that the principal

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    aim of his project was to demonstrate his own proficiency and credibility in order to gain the favor of the emperor Augustus and other potential clients (Nichols forthcoming).

    Ancient poets, dramatists, orators, satirists, philosophers, historians, and others all wrote about art, recording valuable information about individ-ual craftsmen, objects, techniques, purposes, styles, dates, and historical circumstances, and much else. Neither the space allocated for this essay, nor, indeed, several larger volumes, would be adequate to list, let alone analyze, the vast corpus of ancient texts on Greek art. J.J. Pollitt (1990: 69; 1974: 971) has usefully identified four categories into which ancient writers on art might be placed: compilers of tradition, literary analogists, moral aestheticians, and professional critics. This chapter is organized somewhat differently, for some ancient authors combine approaches and/or draw on a variety of sources. It aims to provide an overview of several genres of writing that invoke ancient art and to highlight some authors who are particularly significant or representative.

    14.2 Inscriptions

    Whether painted, carved, engraved, cast, hammered, or scratched, inscriptions on works of art unlike many other types of writing about art tend to be contemporaneous with their production and most probably come from the hand of the craftsman. The earliest date to the late 8th c. BC, when artists signatures and dedicatory inscriptions appear on vases and stone (Boardman 1998: fig. 162; Hurwit 1999: 9091, figs. 62, 63; Snodgrass 2000; Osborne 2010). Such inscriptions continued to be produced throughout the first millennium BC and provide valuable information not only about the identity of craftsmen and the purposes of their products, but also about the self-perception and projection of both artists and patrons. Indeed, some signatures, such as that on the base of a statue carved by Euthykartides of Naxos, demonstrate that artists dedicated their own work (Marcad 19531957: vol.2, 46; Jeffrey 1961: 304, no. 3; Boardman 1978: fig. 56; Stewart 1990: pl. 40; in general, Scheibler 1979).

    Early signatures often provide just a name and a verb, epoie or epoiesen: so-and-so made [this], but often the object physical as well as grammatical isnot only implied, but is also present in the form of a first-person accusative pronoun, me: so-and-so made me. Thus the object speaks, becoming animate and autonomous. Signatures of potters appear long before those ofvase-painters (Immerwahr 1990; Cohen 1991; Wachter 2001; Osborne 2010), and craftsmen also signed mosaics, metalwork, coins, gems, and even temples, as well as statues and statue bases (Lwy 1885; Marcad

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  • 276 Forms, Times, and Places

    19531957; Jeffrey 1990 (1961); Franke and Hirmer 1964: 4953; Richter 1968b: 333; Stewart 1990: 2224; Lawrence 1996: 220, col. 2, n. 12; Dunbabin 1999: 14, 2526, 33; Keesling 2003: esp. 2235; Lapatin and Wight 2010: 34).

    Inscriptions sometimes provide additional information about craftsmen: the name of their father, tribe, or hometown, especially, it seems, when working abroad. They also record the status, family connections, and other circumstances of the deceased in the case of funerary markers (Richter 1961; Clairmont 1993) or dedicator in the case of votives as well as the intended recipient of the object. Such commemorative and votive inscriptions are often written in verse, perhaps reflecting actual dedicatory utterances and/or encouraging viewers/readers to repeat them aloud (Rouse 1902; Raubitschek 1949; Day 1994). One of the most illuminating early inscriptions is cut into the thighs of the bronze male figure in Boston already mentioned in Chapter 5, which dates to the early 7th c. BC (Boardman 1978: fig. 10): Mantiklos dedicated me to the far-shooter of the silver bow as a tithe, do thou, O Phoibos [Apollo], give something pleasing in return (Jeffrey 1961: 9091, no. 1, pl. 7; Stewart 1990: 4, pl. 11; Day 1994: 3943; Papalexandrou 2004: 8486). Whether Mantiklos is the artist or, more likely, the patron is uncertain, but the inscription succinctly reveals something of the roles played by material culture in the reciprocal relationships between gods and men.

    Inscriptions serve other purposes as well. For scholars today, they are extremely useful in establishing and refining chronology and origin, as their content (e.g. names of magistrates or artists lineages) and form (i.e. shape of letters and dialect) can help to date and place artifacts. Also, in diverse media the figures depicted are sometimes labeled, although such name inscriptions often seem redundant: who needs to be told that the muscle-man wearing a lionskin and holding a club is Herakles, or the armed female wearing a snakey aegis (a shield-like cape) is Athena? Nonetheless, scholars and perhaps the ancients too would have misidentified several figures without such inscrip-tions: the rediscovery of lost painted labels on the east frieze of the Treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi (cf. Figure 7.1), for example, has allowed for the proper identification and interpretation of the depicted myth (Brinkmann 1985; Shapiro 1988).

    Writing in and of itself, moreover, frequently served as a form of decoration: on vases and elsewhere, inscriptions are often carefully placed. And in the 6thc. BC the relatively new technology of writing, apparently, could serve as a symbol of status. Hence, perhaps, the prevalence of so-called mock or nonsense inscriptions on drinking vessels and other painted pots. These sometimes are formed by mere blobs, but frequently employ letters and sometimes even approximate words. They are written by literate as well as

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    illiterate painters and are often onomatopoeic. At Athens, they seem to have been especially popular during the early years of the Athenian democracy (Beazley 1929: 361362; 1932: 194195; Immerwahr 1990: 4445; Lissarrague 1990b: 123139; 1994; Sparkes 1991: 112113; Jubier 1998 [2002]).

    Public accounts inscribed on stone also provide a trove of information about diverse works of art. A fragment of the so-called Marmor Parium, an ancient chronological table, for example, reports that replacement statues of the Tyrannicides at Athens, originally produced by Antenor but carried off by the Persians, were erected in 477/6 BC (Figure 21.1). Inventories of ancient temple treasuries, meanwhile, record in considerable detail the imagery, dedicators, and locations of thousands of lost objects, many fashioned from precious and/or perishable materials (Linders 1975; Aleshire 1989; Harris 1995; Hamilton 2000; Lapatin 2005). Building inscriptions provide data about processes of quarrying and transporting materials and the construction and finishing of structures, as well as details of contracts with and wages paid to individual craftsmen. From the accounts of the so-called Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis, for example, we learn that citizens, slaves, and resi-dent aliens worked side by side and were paid the same wages for carving figures for the frieze amounts determined by the size of the job (Randall 1953; see also Burford 1969, 1972; Scranton 1969).

    Perhaps most interesting for art historians or archaeologists are those inscriptions that reveal something about the intended, or desired, reception of a given artifact. The word agalma, delight, is often used to denote statues dedicated as votives, while xoanon undergoes a transformation in meaning from something carved to sacred statue (Donohue 1988; Keesling 2003). Artists, meanwhile, might boast about and on individual objects: an early 5th c. BC Boeotian stele that depicts a boldly foreshortened male figure is proudly inscribed Alxenor of Naxos made me just look! (Boardman 1978: fig. 244; Stewart 1990: pl. 254). A verse inscription scratched into a rather unassuming Late Geometric terracotta drinking cup evidently manufactured on Rhodes, but found at Pithekoussai on the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples, refers, apparently jokingly, to the enormous and finely-decorated golden cup of Nestor described by Homer in the Iliad (11.63237; Immerwahr 1990: 1819; Ridgway 1992: 5557). Such writings indicate self-consciousness. The famous inscription painted on an amphora by a late 6thc. BC red-figure vase-painter, however, has perhaps been over-interpreted bymodern scholars: Euthymides painted me as never Euphronios is fre-quently taken as a jibe directed at the skill of a rival painter in the Athenian potters quarter, but, as has been noted, the two parts of the inscription appear on opposite sides of the vase. As never Euphronios might refer to the act of drawing the foreshortened image of a twisting reveler, but it may instead have

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  • 278 Forms, Times, and Places

    been meant to proclaim Euthymidess proficiency in revelry or some other activity, especially as the vessel was designed for use at a symposion a drinking party (Boardman 1975: fig. 33; Vickers and Gill 1994: 9798).

    The form as well as content of inscriptions can also be revelatory: sculptors signatures on statue bases seem to become larger and more prominent in the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, their increased size apparently reflecting the greater importance of artists identities in an age obsessed with status and connoisseurship (Tanner 2006: 206209, cf. 153155). Inscriptions, moreover, were evidently read and interpreted by other ancient authors long before modern a...

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